Sunday, August 7, 2011

Science Phiction #3: Gender in Mind

Philosopher Alva Noe is discussing gender and neurobiology on the NPR blog (see here and here). His primary goal is noble. He wants to counter the cultural forces which stereotype men and women and which, in some cases, lead us to devalue ourselves and sabotage our own potential. He appeals to a work of popular science by Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, which he says draws the following conclusion: "Whatever cognitive or personality differences there are between men and women cannot be attributed, except in a few isolated cases, to intrinsic biological or psychological differences between men and women, at least not in the current state of knowledge." I haven't read Fine's work, so I cannot say how well Noe has represented her conclusion. In any case, the conclusion he attributes to her is much weaker than the three claims Noe himself puts forward in the name of science. 

First, Noe says the science clearly tells us that there are "no cognitively significant neurobiological differences between men and women." This is surely too strong, and not at all what Fine seems to conclude. It certainly isn't supported by any of the evidence Noe discusses. 

"You are looking in the wrong place," Noe also says, "if you look to the brain for an understanding of what makes us different." This also goes against Fine's conclusion, which says that there are intrinsic biological or psychological differences which account for some personality differences between men and women. Indeed, considering just how obvious it is that neurological differences can cause behavioral differences, it is rather stunning to see anybody making such a flat claim as Noe's. Why suppose that neuroscience is incapable of furthering our understanding of gender differences? Noe makes no clear argument for this remarkably strong statement. (It was Noe's lack of argument that originally made me suspect a philosophical bias at play here. Perhaps Noe is showing some bias concerning the relationship between brains and behavior, though this is not so clear). 

Finally, he suggests that biology alone cannot account for human differences, and that we must also take "ways of thinkinginto account. Noe seems to think that ways of thinkingcannot be analyzed as biological phenomena. He says what makes us different is our own behavior, our ways of identifying ourselves in such ways. But why suppose this sort of activity is not biologically determined? Why suppose that ways of thinking are not behavioral dispositions like any other? Why suppose they are not a matter of biological development? 

Noe suggests a false dichotomy between nature and nurture, between biology and culture. Cultural differences, however historical and arbitrary, can also be biological differences. 

Let's look at the details of Noe's analysis to see how this all plays out. Following Fine, Noe surveys various studies showing that adopting a persona can have significant effects on our performance. If you think of yourself as a cheerleader, you will likely do less well on certain sorts of tasks than if you think of yourself as a professor. Other research suggests that female students at a private college do worse when they are primed to think of themselves as women than when they are primed to think of themselves as private college students. Men, in contrast, do better when primed to think of themselves as men. 

Perhaps when we think of ourselves according to particular stereotypes, we prime our brains to act in certain ways. We might alter the structure of our cognitive capacities just by identifying ourselves one way rather than another. Noe does not go into the neurobiological aspects of this phenomenon, though it presumably has a neurological basis. Noe focuses instead on the relationship between behavior and society. It is because we think of ourselves in certain ways that we act in certain ways. The categories we use to define ourselves--man, woman, heterosexual, homosexual, cheerleader and professor--only exist by virtue of a "matrix of ideas," he says, which is reinforced by cultural institutions. 

Of course, Noe says, we can distinguish between thick and thin categories. For example, we can identify homosexual behavior in various times (and even species) which do not have the requisite discourse for thick homosexuality. Similarly, we need not postulate a matrix of ideas to identify or account for instances of masculinity and femininity throughout the animal kingdom. But, Noe insists, there are also thick personality differences: behavioral differences which are based on ways of thinking, and not instinct. 

While I do not challenge the thick/thin distinction, I do question Noe's interpretation of it. Surely we would be wrong to ignore culture and discourse when trying to understand human behavior, including gender. However, it is an old misconception to suppose that culture begins where biology ends. William James made the point well when he said human behavior is distinguished, not by an absence of instincts, but by a warring abundance of them. Yet, Noe concludes, "If biology is the measure of all things, then many of the categories we use to group ourselves into kinds of persons . . . are, in fact, unreal." Apparently, Noe thinks cultural differences exist in some realm beyond the limits of biological analysis. This looks more like a philosophical bias than a scientifically supported conclusion. The thick/thin distinction does not entail that thick personality differences are less biologically determined than thin ones. Not unless you assume that culture is not a matter of biological development. 

Noe's own views aside, I want to make two brief remarks about Fine's conclusion (as Noe states it), because it looks potentially misleading. Again, it is: "Whatever cognitive or personality differences there are between men and women cannot be attributed, except in a few isolated cases, to intrinsic biological or psychological differences between men and women, at least not in the current state of knowledge." First, there is the mention of "intrinsic" differences, which are presumably differences which are not influenced by culture or other environmental factors. Since human biological development involves culture and other environmental influences, it is not clear what makes a biological difference intrinsic. Perhaps Fine is talking about genetic differences, though, as biologists often point out, even genetic differences are expressed through biological development, and so are sensitive to the environment. So it's not clear how cleanly Fine is distinguishing between intrinsic and extrinsic biological differences, and this makes her conclusion a little suspicious. Second, even if there are few "intrinsic" differences (whatever that means), there can be many "extrinsic" biological differences. So, while a certain, limited view of biological influence may not account for a great deal of the gender differences we perceive, a broader view of biological difference might do the job. 

The research shows that the way we think about ourselves can have unintended consequences for the way we act, and even on our very ability to perform. This is not exactly surprising, nor is it very new, though the particular studies Noe discusses are indeed interesting. However, I see no evidence that there are no (or even few) cognitively significant neurobiological differences between men and women, nor that there are anysalient behavioral/personality differences between men and women which cannot be traced to biology. Noe's views do not have the weight of science behind them, but rather suggest a naive view of the relationship between biology and culture.